Athlete, performer, harnessing inner strength.
How many of you out there have seen a competitive pole dancing routine? I’m not talking about some Hollywood re-enactment of a seedy strip club. A high level, high energy competition. If so, you may have noticed the mind-blowing skill of these elite athletes, who are at peak fitness and strength, can usually bend their bodies in half, and doing it all in 8inch heels. Bethany Tyler is one such athlete.
Beth and I met while working in communications for State Government, and bonded over snacks and the incompetence of many of our colleagues. Beth can be quite shy when you first meet her, so it took me a while to discover there was a flame-haired firecracker underneath the polite façade, who can talk about pole dancing til the cows come home. And then just watch one of her routines and prepare to have your mind blown!
Pole dancing has previously been pigeonholed into the seedy underbelly of society, with judgement and disrespect placed on those who made a living from it, or just enjoyed its performance style. But a recent surge in fitness and competitive pole dancing is slowly but surely transforming its much maligned reputation, to one that comfortably sits within the mainstream fitness circuit.
A natural progression from earlier years of competitive dancing, Beth fell quick and hard for the sport; it brought out her natural creativity and exceptional choreographing skills, as well as a sheer determination to be at the top of her game. But like any elite sport, this drive can come at the cost of other parts of your life, including both physical and mental health.
I had such a raw and beautiful chat with Beth about her passion for performing pole and the wonderful community that comes with it, her struggle with, and journey through, mental health and eating disorders and unrealistic image expectations, and taking pole dancing to the people!
Bethany Tyler is…
A semi-professional competitive pole dancer, a former journalist and current comms advisor, a pole instructor, I’m a daughter, sister, friend, dog mum (most importantly).
Why do you do what you do and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I’m a pole dancing instructor by night, and by day I work in an editorial coordination role in state government. I wouldn’t say I chose to get into pole dancing, it just happened organically. I used to dance when I was younger, I think that any of those things that you do when you are young become part of your identity. So when I stopped, I think I was constantly looking for something to fill that gap, so I tried boot camps and other types of fitness, but nothing felt quite right.
One of my girlfriends was an instructor a local pole studio and suggested I join up to her new eight-week beginner class. I’d been in awe of her pole videos on Instagram for ages and thought ‘I want to do that’, so off I went, thinking my years of dancing would give me a head start. I was sorely mistaken, I was absolutely rubbish. Frustratingly rubbish.
But I loved it.
So I kept going back, and I kept sucking until eventually, seemingly out of nowhere, I started not to suck so muchI ended up moving studios, and about two years later the owner pulled me aside and said one of things that she noticed was that I had had to work really hard to get every trick and she thought I would make a good instructor, because I would empathise with and understand people who were struggling with the moves, and be able to break things down in a way that would help.
One of the things I love most about teaching is seeing people start to love it as much as I did. They come in for their first class super nervous, but then by week three or week four you see that passion start to come out and that self-confidence start to come out – the tops get a bit shorter, the shorts get a bit shorter!
It had become something I was talking about all the time and finally I had a platform where I could talk about pole for four hours a night, so it was really cool.
How did you go from teaching to the competitive space?
When I was younger and dancing, I used to compete in solo performances, so that was familiar to me. At the pole studio, we have in-house competitions that people kept telling me to enter. I was really nervous but I finally bit the bullet. In my first in-house comp I came third; it was the worst routine, I was a butterfly, which is so far removed from the theme of my routines now – they’re quite dark and twisty, one of them I was a psycho Barbie and ate somebody’s heart!
I’ve always had this thing where if I hear a piece of music I like, I start to imagine a routine and performance to go with it. I think I’m quite introverted person, but I really love performing and being on stage. So when you’re given the chance to go on stage and literally be someone else, you can step into a whole other character, those insecurities are just gone.
I did a couple more in-house competitions and that next year in our Valentine’s Day comp I came first. And then I later that year I did another competition and won that as well, which was when I started to think about competing externally.
These external competitions are held all across the world. To enter them you submit a video of yourself doing a routine and from that they’ll pick who they want to compete. The first amateur comp I got into was called Hardcore Pole Dancing Championships, in Sydney, and I was fortunate to place first in that.
You won your first external competition!
Yeah I took out the Amateur crown, it was crazy! You can train as much as you want in the studio, but the setting on the stage is really different. For people who have never seen a pole competition before, they’re always structured the same way; you have two poles – one is static on the right and the other is spin, where it’s not as fixed into the base and you use your momentum to spin the pole. You always have to use both and transition between the two – you can’t just walk, you’ve got to be creative with how you move across the floor. Comps are also judged by dance, concept, presence, and other criteria based on what the comp is about.
I also had qualified for another competition, just six weeks after, which was called Dance Filthy, and where Hardcore was more focused on the athleticism, tricks and strength, this one is more about the show, more of a sensual style of comp.
How you’d typically perceive pole dancing?
Yes, but a big part of it is not taking yourself too seriously. In previous years, one of the guest performers was Oscar the Grouch and ripped herself out of a trash bag! It was still a sexy routine, but also took the mickey out of it, which I loved. I thought it would be a good chance to give my body a break as I’d hurt my shoulder and had been training these crazy tricks, contorting my body into ways it probably isn’t meant to be, so was looking forward to focusing more on the dance and the performance. And I won that one as well, and then I went on to win my first semi-pro title with my best friend Brady as a doubles act at Pole Theatre Sydney later in the year!
You hit the trifecta last year! Competing would also be a way of pushing yourself to try something scary, to challenge yourself?
Absolutely, and another really cool thing about it is the pole community is really big on Instagram, so I’d gone from just following them on social media, to sharing backstage with some of my idols, so it helps you network with other pole dancers.
Do you find the pole community is supportive?
Absolutely! If anything, the competition scene is where you find the most support. You watch each other’s tech runs, you pump each other up and also offer support – sometimes routines don’t go as planned and someone might come offstage not in the best headspace, and straight away everyone is there comforting them. It’s such a supportive industry, and one where everyone’s differences, strengths, styles, and body shapes are embraced.
Pole dancers are some of the fittest athletes out there, but have you found some people have reacted negatively when you tell them you pole dance, or has that changed recently?
That’s a really interesting question. I do find I’m selective with how I phrase I’m a pole dancer – at work, the people I do tell, I might say that I do pole fitness, as opposed to dancer. But I think it’s definitely changed over recent years and has become a bit more normalised, such as seeing people on talent shows competing.
It has become a quite a popular form of exercise now.
Exactly. And in the end you’re not going to win them all – some people still have their reservations around it. I guess if you’ve never seen it and the athleticism side of it, you’re going to have your predispositions about it.
But in saying that, pole dancing came from strip clubs, and more power to it. It’s really fun to embrace the sexy, sensual side of pole dancing as well, it’s not just fitness based.
I can imagine it’s quite empowering
Hugely! We have classes that are focussed around the sexy side of it, where you can chuck on a pair of heels and embrace that side of yourself, that sensuality.
At the end of the day, everyone is going to have their own opinion on it, and if they’re going to lead with negativity, then that’s their issue, not mine.
You’ve spoken recently on your struggles with mental health, and how competing has affected your body – can you tell me a bit about that and how you’re working through it?
I wouldn’t blame competiveness of pole for my issues, it was more the pressure I put on myself. As with any kind of competitive sport, or anything you might have a physique goal attached to it, there can be some issues coming out the other side of that. I have a history of body issues and insecurities, and when I went into my first comp, knowing that I was going to be on a national stage, I got it in my head that I had to be super lean and look a certain way to fit in with the other competitors.
So I went into it with a goal to get super lean and shredded to help with my training, but also to look a certain way. It worked for the first comp so I decided to keep following it for the second one. It’s also hard when it’s a societal thing where you’re told that smaller is better and fitter, that fitness and health has a certain look. So the smaller I got, the more compliments I got, which meant nothing to me at the time because I still wasn’t confident in myself. But when you’ve got all these voices telling you that you look great, that’s telling you that you’re doing the right thing.
I ended up spending a whole year eating in a calorie deficit, and as a result, yes I was quite lean, but I was miserable. I was thinking about food all the time because my body was quite literally starving. It’s funny too, because in that second competition, I was actually quite weak – moves I nailed in the first comp I now found really hard. I remember at the time thinking that maybe I wasn’t training hard enough, but when I look back, I think it was because my body was eating the muscle. I’d also started running too, to try and burn extra calories, and as a result stopped getting my period. So it was a really unhealthy mindset to be in.
Coming through the other side of that, when your body has been starving for so long, when you go back to normal, of course you’re going to gain weight, and that was really hard for me to deal with. Now I had this benchmark of what I could look like, so when I put on weight I felt like such a failure and that people would be judging me about it, that it would ruin my credibility as a pole dancing teacher, competitor and athlete. Of course no one was thinking that, but it was really hard to reconcile with, and it triggered another six months of yoyo dieting.
It would never be sustainable would it?
Absolutely not sustainable. Going on comp diets could potentially work for some people, but for someone like me with a history of body issues and eating disorders, it was a perfect storm. The whole thing plummeted me into a pretty severe depression.
The turning point for me was when I went to Mardi Gras in February, which was meant to be the happiest week with all my best friends and I spent the whole time miserable and hung up on how I looked. I ended up having a breakdown after a few drinks and that’s when I knew I needed to get professional help. Literally the day I got back I emailed an eating disorder psychologist to book an appointment and had my first therapy session the next week.
The first session is always the hardest, and realising that’s what you need to do, isn’t it? So good on you.
It was so hard, actually saying out loud what I had been struggling with. No one really knew what I was I was going through, I’d kept it mostly to myself. I felt a lot of shame and felt like I was weak, which is completely not true.
It had been particularly bad recently, but this is something that I’d been struggling with for years, and something I thought that I could manage – manage an eating disorder myself, which is impossible, it’s managing you.
That started the next few months of inner work – I’d been focussing for so long on my outer self, thinking that if I looked a certain way I’d be happy and confident. Which of course was a lie, I did look that way and I wasn’t confident. It made me realise that it’s much more beneficial to change how you see yourself, than what you actually look like.
I wouldn’t say in any way shape or form that I am recovered, I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I’m in such a better place than I’ve been in a really long time, and that was through making that first step to address that there was actually an issue and that I needed some help, that I couldn’t fix it on my own.
In addition to the therapy, I’ve been doing a lot of journaling and meditation, and just sitting with those uncomfortable feelings and learning from them.
Obviously pole is on hold for a bit because of your finger (Beth almost severed her finger in a sourdough slicing accident!), but what’s next for you both in the pole space and life wise?
Yes I just had surgery to repair that partially severed tendon from cutting sourdough at 5am, so it will probably take a few months for me to recover from that. But once I get the strength back I will start training again to try and get my strength back to what it was.
I do have some more comps that I want to do and at least three routines in mind that I’d like to create – I can already picture them so I need to bring them to life! My doubles partner, Brady, and I have qualified for a semi-pro placement at Pole Theatre Worlds, which was meant to be held in Greece this year and has obviously been postponed. So hopefully I’m fighting fit when they announce the new dates for that.
Do you think you’ll approach training differently now, knowing what you know now about your relationship with food and body image?
Yeah definitely. I understand now how I’m fuelling my body to get the best out of it, but I think now I’ll also have a lot more balance and flexibility. And also taking the focus away from my external appearance and eating for enjoyment as well as strength and to fuel the workout.
At the end of the day, you’re not getting points for how shredded you look, you’re getting points for your performance that you’ve created. That’s my strength as a pole dancer – my creativity, my ability to perform and to be able to put this fully-formed concept on the stage. And that’s just going to be a lot more fun too, rather than focusing on the way I look!
I think that everything that I went through last year was all necessary to show me how much I value myself, why I value pole dancing and how much I enjoy it.
To follow Beth’s pole journey, follow her on Instagram @bethypoledancer